Carry this island home in his pocket.
—Sebastian, The Tempest
The Prosperous reached London in late October or early November 1611. The vessel returned to the city with no advance warning, and so only workers and passersby were on the quay when William Strachey exchanged the woodland paths of Virginia for the muddy lanes of London after more than two years in the wilds.
Strachey’s return to his wife, Frances, and sons William Jr., now fifteen, and Edmund, now seven, is undocumented. Surely the appearance of his carriage at the front walk of their house in Crowhurst, Surrey, was a shock to his family. Their initial excitement would have been mixed with surprise at the rough appearance of their husband and father. When the frenzy of the greeting was over, the boys probably stroked the smooth backs of the tethered hawks and examined the dried cat claws their father had carried home. The earthy scent of the Virginia mementos would have brought forth many questions. Strachey certainly recounted his travels in greater detail than the official reports that had reached the family. Frances and the boys probably started the conversation by telling Strachey they had thought him dead for a year—until learning of his survival on Bermuda after a titanic struggle with an Atlantic tempest.
The returning voyager did not linger long in Crowhurst. Strachey was eager to exploit the interest in his writings that had been shown by the letter from Martin. First he would deliver the hawks Thomas Dale had sent by him to Prince Henry and the Earl of Salisbury. Then to put himself in close proximity to members of the Virginia Company, he would again leave his family behind and take a room in the Blackfriars district of London. Once settled, Strachey intended to fulfill his pledge to Dale to publish the Jamestown laws.
On December 13, Strachey formally registered the laws for publication with the Stationers’ Company of London under the title For the Colony in Virginea Britannia, Lawes Divine, Morall and Martiall. To exploit the exposure the book would provide him, he included an introductory letter of his own addressed to the Virginia Company. Since he suspected the readers might not make it through the letter, he summarized his message in the first sentence: “During the time of my unprofitable service” in Virginia, Strachey said, he had taken it upon himself to serve as a “remembrancer of all accidents, occurrences, and undertakings thereunto.” The message was clear—Strachey’s time in Virginia had left him poor, but if he were now properly financed he would produce a comprehensive chronicle of Jamestown.
Upon his return to England Strachey found himself once again in need of money for daily subsistence, a disconcerting change after having his food and shelter provided for him in Virginia. The truth was that he had come back from Jamestown without a coin in his pocket. Old friends were generous in the excitement of his return and lent him money, but the attention and funds soon faded. To make matters worse, as soon as moneylender Jasper Tien learned of Strachey’s return home he filed suit to recover thirty pounds the Virginia voyager had borrowed years earlier.
What Strachey needed was a patron. He had high hopes that the recipient of his letter from Virginia, Lucy, Countess of Bedford, would be that patron. If he could convince the countess to fund his work just as she did the writings of John Donne, things would be fine. Strachey realized soon after returning home, however, that such an arrangement was an unlikely prospect. Donne had acquired a new patron, Sir Robert Drury, and an angry countess had cut off contact with him (and undoubtedly anyone associated with him as well). In any case, just weeks before Strachey returned, the countess had lost a one-day-old baby and was in seclusion. Thus, all the preparation Strachey had made in sending his letter to the countess and cultivating her favor would be for naught. What’s more, Donne would shortly leave on an extended trip to Italy with the family of his new patron, so there would be no opportunity to exploit new connections through him, either.
On the positive side, as a courier for the leaders of Jamestown, Strachey had opportunities to come in contact with wealthy people in the days following his return. He had delivered the hawks Dale sent to Prince Henry and the Earl of Salisbury. In both cases, however, he had been treated as little more than a deliveryman. The lack of attention was perhaps understandable, since just as Strachey returned to London the court of King James was in the midst of hosting a visit by Frederick V of the Palatine, the leading suitor for the hand of James’s daughter, Princess Elizabeth. Festivities surrounding the visit were a subject of conversation throughout the city. To Strachey the most notable events associated with the visit were theater productions that had been presented to the royal guest. The highlight of the slate of dramas was a new play by William Shakespeare called The Tempest. The production took place at the royal Masquing House on the grounds of Whitehall Palace. The date was November 1, 1611—All Hallows’ Day—within a day or two of Strachey’s return to London.
The Masquing House was England’s most sumptuous theater. In 1606, James had ordered a 1518 banquet hall rebuilt as a theater. The new building was a hundred and seventy feet long and sixty feet wide. A forty-by-forty-foot stage stood at one end, raised three feet off the floor. Tiers of backless wooden benches separated into columned bays accommodated noble members of the audience, while the king and his family sat on a raised platform directly in the center of the audience section. A canopy covered the king’s throne, which was even with the height of the stage. Special guests sat on stools at the edge of the royal platform. Candle-filled chandeliers hung from the ceiling.
Thirteen men and four boys presented The Tempest (men still played all women’s roles onstage). King James and Queen Anna were attired much as they would be a few days later when the Venetian ambassador described them at another event: “The imagination could hardly grasp the gorgeousness of the spectacle. The king’s own cloak, breeches, and jacket were all sewn with diamonds, a rope and jewel of diamonds also in his hat of inestimable value.” Queen Anna, the ambassador said, “had in her hair a very great number of pear-shaped pearls, the largest and most beautiful in the world; and there were diamonds all over her person, so that she was ablaze.”
A contemporary description of a Masquing House drama involving ships at sea—one that may well be an account of this very performance—provides a glimpse of the opening scene of Shakespeare’s new play. A Londoner named James Shirley described “waves capering about tall ships” and “a tempest so artificial and sudden in the clouds with a general darkness and thunder so seeming made to threaten, that you would cry out with the mariners in the works, ‘You cannot escape drowning.’” On the night of the Tempest debut, the applause was as loud as the thunder that had rolled through its opening scene. Backstage, Shakespeare and the King’s Men knew that the royal approval would translate into big crowds when they opened the play at the Blackfriars and the Globe.
What Strachey heard about the play intrigued him because it featured a storm and a shipwreck on an enchanted island, much like the one he had just experienced himself. To some in the Masquing House audience the play seemed to be Shakespeare’s commentary on England’s colonial ambitions. If that was the case, Strachey was eager to see the new drama himself. Fresh from the successful performance at the Masquing House, Shakespeare’s King’s Men probably opened the play at the Blackfriars Theater soon afterward. One may imagine Strachey attended a show as soon as possible. After all, he was no stranger to the theater—in the old days he had been a part owner of the Blackfriars and visited as often as three times a week—and this was no ordinary play.
Two years earlier when William Shakespeare began contemplating The Tempest in 1609 at the age of forty-five, he was the leading playwright of the day—not a giant of literature but an author of popular works of wit and insight. In the months after the Sea Venture departed he was contemplating retirement despite being in the midst of his most creative decade. The closing of the theaters during the plague cost him dearly, however, and leisure would have to wait. While he anticipated the end of the plague in the relative safety of Stratford-upon-Avon, he looked for a subject for a new play. As usual, his method of looking for the framework of a new drama was to read widely and to gauge the current interests of his audience.
A book that may have met Shakespeare’s gaze as he searched for a theme was William Thomas’s 1549 Historye of Italye. Thomas tells the story of Prospero Adorno, a duke of Genoa who was deposed in 1461. The book also tells of King Alphonso of Naples, who married a daughter of the Duke of Milan and abdicated in favor of his son Ferdinand. Shakespeare often built his history plays on outlines he drew from accounts of real people of the past. Perhaps these Italian stories offered possibilities. He was partial to the Old World as a setting for his plays, and England’s flourishing trade to ports on the Mediterranean Sea made the classical world of current interest to Londoners. Perhaps he could find a way to bring in elements of both the New and Old Worlds, to knit a classical setting onto a colonial theme.
Shakespeare also used ancient texts as a reliable source of ideas. He enjoyed making classical literary allusions in his plays even though many patrons of London’s theaters were unable to read. The allusions were included for the benefit of literate theatergoers who considered it a point of pride to identify his sources. Virgil’s Aeneid, with its story of the founding of an empire, had much to offer. In addition, the playwright surely had Arthur Golding’s 1567 translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses on his table. Ovid’s evocation of a Golden Age intrigued him, especially in light of another work—John Florio’s recent translation of Renaissance philosopher Michel de Montaigne’s essay “Of the Cannibals.” Montaigne moved Ovid’s theme of a Golden Age ahead in time, suggesting that the people of the New World were living a Golden Age of coexistence with each other and the natural world.
Reading Montaigne reminded Shakespeare of current events. Here was an intersection of classical and contemporary themes, just the kind of interconnection the playwright could use to craft a play that spoke to the latest concerns of Londoners. The presses of the city were dominated by publications about the New World. At that very time, in fact, the Virginia Company was shifting from its attempt to motivate potential colonists with talk of treasure to a more philosophical approach that imagined the founding of an ideal commonwealth in Virginia. Competing visions of a Golden Age and a savage world were at the ambivalent root of the contemporary debate about New World exploration, and, as Shakespeare knew, conflict is a fine thing to have at the heart of a play.
The obvious books to read for ideas about the New World were collections of explorers’ chronicles such as Richard Willes’s History of Travayle in the West and East Indies (a copy of which William Strachey had taken aboard the Sea Venture). Shakespeare had used travel narratives in crafting earlier plays, and perhaps this new one would be no exception. Willes’s 1577 collection of writings by explorers included an abridged version of The History of the West Indies by Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo (spelled “Gonzalus Ferdinandus Oviedus” by Willes). Always on the lookout for engaging language sounds, Shakespeare may have paused when he came across the name of that author. Gonzalus Ferdinandus: perhaps that name might adorn a character or two in a play about the New World if he ever put one to paper.
As he read Willes’s book, the playwright came across the story from the Magellan voyage about the captured Patagonian native appealing to the deity Setebos. As he read the description of the events that had happened nearly a century earlier at the bottom of the world, Shakespeare mulled the idea that a character in his play might recapitulate the Patagonian’s call to Setebos. Such a character might call out to this god as he struggled to understand forced servitude imposed by Europeans who invaded his land. If Shakespeare also picked up Richard Hakluyt’s Principal Navigations, Voyages, Traffiques and Discoveries of the English Nation, he may have read Job Hartop’s story of the Bermuda sea monster— the part human, part fish monster who resembled a New World man. Maybe the playwright would create a man-monster of his own.
An example of a wild man character was fresh in Shakespeare’s mind. The King’s Men were at that moment preparing to launch a revival production of the popular anonymous play Mucedorus. One of the characters of the play is Bremo—a classic wild man of the forest who displays a mixture of brutishness and refinement. Bremo is a recluse who attacks everyone he encounters, everyone, that is, except a young woman who captures his imagination. A knight kills Bremo, an outcome that always prompts a mixed reaction in the audience. Shakespeare was intrigued by the possibilities of creating a new wild man for the stage, one who might also have an incongruous mix of coarse and sophisticated attributes. If he were to create such a character, a New World play would be a natural setting.
Encounters Shakespeare surely had with indigenous people of Virginia reinforced the playwright’s preoccupation with experimenting with Old World perceptions of New World people. During the playwright’s lifetime more than thirty-five people were brought across the Atlantic to England, most as curiosities to be displayed to the paying public of London (envoys Namontack and Machumps were conspicuous exceptions). Though many of the kidnapped men and women died soon after arrival, their value as attractions did not cease with their passing. Preserved corpses, decorated with paint and faux costumes, were sometimes made available to the viewing public.
Namontack’s presence in London in the summer of 1608 and the winter of 1609 is especially significant, for Shakespeare likely encountered the visitor who his rival Ben Jonson immortalized with a brief mention in a new play, Epicoene. Here was a New World man of a “shrewd, subtle capacity” who was encountering the wonders and deceits of the Old World. The technologies of England were marvels to the Powhatan from Tsenacomoco, while the subterfuge of his handlers was not immediately apparent to him (as demonstrated by his positive report to Wahunsenacawh between his two London trips). Just as Jonson saw theatrical possibilities in Namontack, so, too, might Shakespeare. Perhaps he would create a stage version of the Powhatan visitor that was more complex than Jonson’s mere mention, a character that might arise from Shakespeare’s perception of Namontack as a wild man learning western ways in the service of a European master.
Since the first Jamestown fleet departed England in 1607, exploration of the New World had been the talk of London. The value of that public interest was not lost on William Shakespeare. The playwright possessed a keen ability to discern popular taste and the inclinations of patrons. He surely heard the latest news from Virginia from such well-placed sources as his patron Henry Wriothesley, the Earl of Southampton, who was the most prominent official of the Virginia Company. The ultimate patron of the arts was King James, in whose court any play would have to appear to be deemed a success. Though somewhat skeptical of the value of the Jamestown expeditions and willing to allow the private Virginia Company to do the work, James was closely monitoring the New World enterprise and would want to see any new play that treated it.
Shakespeare’s King’s Men were well named. The troupe performed at court thirty-seven times in 1610 and 1611. The players even provided private performances for the king during the plague epidemic. Part of their appeal was their cooperation with royal directives. Shakespeare offered little resistance to attempts to shape his plays to the tastes of kings and queens. The approval of the royal Office of the Revels was required before any play was permitted to appear at court. As one observer put it, the royal censors made sure the plays were “rehearsed, perfected, and corrected before they come to the public view of the prince and the nobility.” Giving up some creative control could prove lucrative to playwrights and their companies, of course, since shows that did well at court usually played to large audiences when they appeared before the public.
Whatever Shakespeare gave up in fashioning his work to royal and public taste, he could nevertheless be counted on to recapitulate ongoing social debates with keen insight. If the Golden Age dreams of the Virginia Company were being shattered in Jamestown, Shakespeare’s audience could be sure that a vision of the New World from his quill would reflect that reality. If critics of the Virginia enterprise were charging that colonists were invading, exploiting, and brutalizing the people of the New World, a Shakespeare play with a colonial theme would certainly incorporate that criticism. Those deeper themes were the most important elements the playwright would draw from the Jamestown chronicles. The turns of phrase he would purloin would be clues leading to that treasure.
The influence of playwrights as social commentators was stronger than ever during the period in which The Tempest was written. The Virginia Company was exquisitely sensitive to its depiction on the stages of the city. In his February 1610 sermon to the departing Lord Delaware, William Crashaw made a special point of disparaging the influence of “the players” on the Virginia enterprise. “Nothing that is good, excellent, or holy can escape them,” Crashaw said. “How then can this action? But this may suffice, that they are players. They abuse Virginia, but they are but players. They disgrace it, true, but they are but players. And they have played with better things.”
A Shakespeare play about the New World would, of course, be deeper than a simple lampooning of the Jamestown enterprise. The Virginia Company could be counted on to oppose even the most innocuous depiction, but that didn’t bother Shakespeare. His aim was to create art that would both resonate with a general audience and subtly fulfill the wishes of the most important member of the audience, King James. In fact, a current development in the royal family provided a sure way to curry royal favor. All London was aware that King James’s daughter, Princess Elizabeth, would soon choose a royal suitor from the continent, and that the likeliest choice was Frederick V of the Palatine. A play in which a fictional father with transcendent powers saw a daughter happily betrothed would certainly interest the royal family and might even be an appropriate entertainment for a royal engagement celebration.
All those strands of thought were well and good, but Shakespeare still needed a dramatic center around which to build a play. The inherent interest of the theatergoing public was there, as were the pithy themes that naturally arose from the clash of Old and New World cultures. But something more was needed, something vivid, dramatic, and heart pounding that would set the audience on edge from the first line. He would read the printed announcements and pamphlets along with his classical texts, talk to as many people as possible, and wait for something to inspire him.
When Thomas Gates returned from the dead to London in September 1610, Shakespeare had his story. One of the most dramatic sea tales to reach London in years would provide the framework of his new drama. First he read Silvester Jourdain’s Discovery of the Barmodas and Richard Rich’s Newes from Virginia. Then the Virginia Company’s True Declaration of the Estate of the Colonie in Virginia appeared in London book-stores. Ironically, in the pages of its triumphant account of the survival of its colonial governor, the company called the loss and return of the Sea Venturesurvivors a “tragical comedy.” In the hands of England’s pre-eminent playwright, it would become just that.
Shakespeare’s most important source, William Strachey’s letter to his “Excellent Lady,” came into the playwright’s hands sometime in the weeks after it reached London in September 1610. He may have been given a copy by an acquaintance associated with the Virginia Company, but perhaps the most likely place he saw it was at a printer’s shop in St. Paul’s churchyard, a few doors from the Blackfriars Theater. William Welby was the publisher of most of the Virginia chronicles. In an introduction he wrote to a 1613 reprint of Jourdain’s 1610 Sea Venture account, Welby said that he had in his possession an unpublished account of the Bermuda shipwreck that was a “more full and exact description of the country and narration of the nature, site, and commodities, together with a true history of the great deliverance of Sir Thomas Gates and his company upon them.” This was almost surely Strachey’s letter, and given the animosity officials of the Virginia Company felt toward the players of London, it is more likely that Shakespeare borrowed the narrative from Welby than from a company official.
The Blackfriars Theater was a wood-framed stone structure with dormer windows that held five hundred paying customers. Some of the most popular seats were stools lining the sides of the stage (a tradition that annoyed the actors but was too lucrative to give up). Theater was the primary mode of entertainment for men and women of all classes, and fifteen thousand Londoners saw plays each week. Most attended large open-air playhouses like the Globe, which accommodated audiences of up to twenty-five hundred. Theaters were also housed in smaller roofed buildings that provided a more comfortable all-weather experience and appealed to the upper class. As playwright John Marston put it, in the roofed theater “a man shall not be choked with the stench of garlic nor be pasted to the barmy jacket of a beer brewer” as he might be if he watched a play among the groundlings of an open-air house.
The Blackfriars Theater reopened in 1608 as the first enclosed venue for adult actors, having featured child actors in the early years when William Strachey was part owner. The Blackfriars was the first playhouse of any kind within London’s city walls. The owners managed to circumvent a prohibition against theaters within the city because the building was a former monastery and a religious exemption to local laws remained in place. The increasing popularity of the more intimate setting of the enclosed theater prompted changes in the plays themselves—more music and dancing were presented; facial expressions became more important than grand gestures; and plays were broken into acts for the first time so that workers could replenish candles for lighting. The Tempest had all of those characteristics and was the first play Shakespeare tailored to the demands of the Blackfriars venue.
The Tempest did indeed play to large crowds at the Blackfriars following the Masquing House triumph. If William Strachey saw a performance, he would have entered comfortably in advance of the King’s Men’s regular 2:00 p.m. start time. The audience entered the Blackfriars by way of a stately staircase that led to the former monastery dining hall. The theater was housed in the very chamber in which Roman Catholic officials had heard arguments about whether they should grant a divorce to Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon. The interior was lit with light from windows, but candelabra provided much of the illumination and would remain lit during the performance. The stage was plain, and a small balcony provided a second level for the players. Strachey would have selected a seat on a bench and waited for the show to begin.